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San Diego St UNLV Football

UNLV defensive back Jocquez Kalili (26) dives for a tackle on San Diego State’s running back Rashaad Penny (20) during an NCAA college football game in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

It’s a pretty scary thought for anyone hoping to tackle Rashaad Penny, the San Diego State running back who is a Heisman Trophy candidate.

“I think I’m just starting to figure out how strong I can be,” Penny said.

That was most evident Saturday at UNLV when the 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior bounced a third-quarter run outside and crushed defensive back Tim Hough on his way to a 25-yard run. Hough is also 5-11. And listed 35 pounds lighter.

“It was mind-blowing,” Penny said. “It got everyone excited. The sideline was definitely riled up. We knew I might get him one-on-one, and I wanted to make the most of it.”

The play wasn’t a big shock to Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, whose team travels to No. 19 San Diego State on Saturday.

“That’s not the only time he’s done that,” he said.

Though it sounds a little unusual for a senior to just start to scratch the surface of his potential, Penny has been patient, on and off the field, slowly developing into one of the most impressive playmakers in college football.

Penny didn’t play football until his sophomore year of high school, focusing primarily on baseball before that. He saw his older brother, Elijhaa, who wound up starring at Idaho and now is with the Arizona Cardinals, tear it up at Norwalk (Calif.) High.

“I wanted to break his records,” Rashaad said. “Football just looked fun when he was playing, so I wanted to do it, too.”

Sure enough, he one-upped his brother, scoring 103 touchdowns and rushing for 5,000 yards. Boise State was among the schools that offered him scholarships. Penny chose to stay fairly close to home and play for the Aztecs, but first he had to play behind Donnel Pumphrey, who graduated last year as the No. 1 rusher in FBS history.

When the Aztecs last played Boise State, back in 2014, Penny had one carry for 1 yard. He had only one other carry that season, then 61 the following year and 135 last season.

Through six games in 2017, Penny has 143 carries for 993 yards, No. 2 in the nation, with nine touchdowns. He also has two receiving touchdowns and a kickoff return touchdown (on just six returns).

“He’s got more rushing yards than 82 (FBS) teams,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... He’s able to make somebody miss, he’s able to break a tackle, sometimes bounce a play that’s supposed to hit inside. He’s got really good vision, he’s physical, he runs hard and it shows.”

If San Diego State can continue to make a run at a New Year’s Six bowl, then the Heisman talk for Penny will surely follow. He’s currently fifth in ESPN’s poll, fourth at The Sporting News and tied for sixth in USA Today’s poll.

Since former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore was a finalist for the Heisman in 2010, only one other Group of Five player has been invited to New York: Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch in 2013. The last Group of Five running back to be a finalist was TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000.

“It’s been amazing, to be honest, being able to do well and help us win games,” Penny said. “If we keep performing, it can only get better. I was ready to be that No. 1 guy, I finally get it, and I only have this season. I knew I had to improve my core strength to handle it, and I’m finally understanding what I’m capable of.”

If he’s Luke Skywalker, just now starting to figure out his power, consider coach Rocky Long his Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Long spoke to the Los Angeles Times last week and discussed recruiting running backs that weren’t necessarily highly touted. He noted how Penny was patient, waiting for his shot behind Pumphrey. Long said, “Some of those tailbacks would love to be in our system, but they’re impatient in this day and age.”

But Penny, who joked that he’d “never blocked in my life” before coming to San Diego State, has developed into another NFL prospect for the Aztecs. According to the school, 648 of his 993 rushing yards have come after contact.

“He’s a power guy,” Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He’s going to look like he’s going really, really slow, then he sees a hole and darts through that hole. You better get your whole body in that hole or you’re not going to slow him down. Then if he gets out in the open, he can outrun you.”

Boise State has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and ranks No. 18 in rush defense nationally (105.8 yards per game). Penny’s worst game of the season was a 107-yard performance Sept. 30 against Northern Illinois.

“It lets us see where we’re at,” Boise State senior linebacker Gabe Perez said. “He’s up there (with the best). I’ll know more after Saturday. But I know he’s going to be one of the best we’ve seen.”


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